Plausible deniability of covert action is a term of art for intelligence services. It means that although a government did something, and even if everyone clearly suspects that it did, no one could prove that it did in a court of law. The government’s denial of responsibility is plausible. For example, the Kennedy administration ordered the November 1963 overthrow and very likely the assassination of South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem. But administration denied it, even if nobody believed them at that time, no one could prove it. Howard Hughes built the ship, the Glomar Explorer, at the CIA’s request (Project Azorian, also called Project Jennifer) to lift a sunken Soviet ballistic missile submarine (K-129, which sank in 1968) from the seabed some 1,600 miles northwest of Hawai’i. Hughes said the mission of the Glomar Explorer was to mine manganese nodules on the ocean floor. Hughes was just crazy enough to make this plausible—was he actually trying to mine the world’s ocean floors—he thus sparked a UN debate about who owns the ocean floor. In 2022, somebody blew up Russia’s Nord Stream Pipeline in the Baltic Sea. We are expected to believe it was the Ukrainians, and no doubt they went along. It is a thin cover story, but good luck proving it was somebody else.
Although it has received little attention in the United States, in an act with zero plausible deniability, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) just committed an act of war against two NATO member states—Estonia and Finland—and against Sweden, so to be NATO’s newest member. A PRC vessel, the Newnew Polar Bear left the Russian port of Kaliningrad on October 6th and arrived in St. Petersburg on the evening of October 8. On the early morning of October 8th, the vessel cut the 77-kilometer Balticconnector gas pipeline and a telecommunication cable on the seabed of the Gulf of Finland between Estonia and Finland that adjoins the Baltic Sea. The day before, the Newnew Polar Bear is suspected of cutting a telecommunication cable between Estonia and Sweden.
The vessel cut them by dragging its nearly 7-ton anchor along the seabed. Finland’s Minister of European Affairs Anders Adlercreutz stated in a November 30th interview that "I’m not the sea captain. But I would think that you would notice that you’re dragging an anchor behind you for hundreds of kilometers,” and noted as well: "I think everything indicates that it was intentional. But of course, so far, nobody has admitted to it.”
Rather than dragging, it looks like a precision cut, at least of the Balticconnector gas line. It was cut but not Nord Stream 1 pipe A and Nord Steam 1 pipe B, which lie within 900 meters of the Balticconnector break, which is within the Finnish Exclusive Economic Zone. The Finns report that the PRC vessel had been sailing at 11 knots but slowed to 1.1 knots, which is necessary to drop the anchor, before it crossed over the Balticconnector pipeline. At 1:20am the vessel crossed over the Balticconnector, and at the same time the Norwegian seismology center NORSAR detected a tremor at that location. Curiously, the vessel’s Automatic Identification System (AIS) status was listed as "moored” when it was near the pipeline. When the Newnew Polar Bear docked in St. Petersburg on the evening of October 8th, its anchor was not visible.
The PRC will never admit that these actions were deliberate, but the plausibility of their denials is wafer thin.
These actions were extremely significant for three reasons. First, the PRC has a history of using civilian vessels to cut undersea cables, so these actions are standard operating procedure for Beijing. For example, on February 2, 2023, a PRC fishing vessel cut one of two undersea telecommunication cables near Taiwan’s Matsu islands, a small archipelago just off the PRC’s coast. Six days later, another PRC vessel cut the second cable, greatly restricting Matsu’s communication with Taiwan, and demonstrating some of steps the PRC will take before it attacks Taiwan.
Second, this shows that the PRC is actively cooperating with Russia. The PRC is undertaking covert action in support of Russia against NATO allies. Beijing’s diplomatic, economic, and military support was already evident, but this is an example of cooperation in covert action. Russia wants tit-for-tat retaliation for the destruction of Nord Stream and could not conduct an attack itself, so the PRC lent a hand. The axis between Beijing and Moscow is now a direct threat to NATO members as well as to U.S. national security interests in the Indo-Pacific, including key allies like Japan and partners like Taiwan.
Third, these events are a PRC attack on the infrastructure of two NATO states, with damage as well to Sweden’s infrastructure. It was a PRC attack against highly valued targets of NATO members. This cannot be permitted to pass with retaliation against the PRC pipelines and communication cables, or other media of communication between the PRC and the rest of the world. Cutting lines of communication between the PRC and its illegal bases in the South China Sea would be a good place to start. Damaging an energy pipeline into the PRC would be another. Beijing has to pay a price for its attack on the key infrastructure of NATO states.